Saturday, October 9, 2010

"Left" under fire 20 years ago...still today

By Gerald Caplan, Globe and Mail, October 8, 2010
(Mr. Caplan is writing about the history of the Bob Rae government in Ontario, in the 1990's.)
Reflecting this reality, within months Mr. Rae's government faced an unrelenting, brutal four-year onslaught that was unprecedented in Canadian history.

The attacks came from all sides. It is no exaggeration to say hysterical fear-mongering and sabotage was the order of the day. Launched within the very first year of the new government, the attackers included every manner of business big and small, both Canadian and American-owned, almost all private media, the police (especially in Toronto), landlords and lobbying/government relations firms. Their goal was clear, and they had the money and power to achieve it.
They were determined to undermine the government every step of the way, to frustrate the implementation of its plans and to assure its ultimate defeat. In all three goals they were successful. The considerable achievements of the government – often forgotten or dismissed –were wrought in the face of a deep recession and ferocious obstruction.
The tactics were not necessarily subtle. Though the Soviet Union was ignominiously imploding, right-wing columnists such as Diane Francis and Barbara Amiel actually resorted to old-fashioned red baiting, smearing the government as “red” or “communist.” And after the new finance minister's very first meeting with the banking community , a bank vice-president told him, in the presence of an aide: “Nice speech, Mr. Minister, but we're going to kill you.” And they did.
Conrad Black was a leading executioner. Lord Black swore loudly that on principle he'd never invest in Ontario under an NDP government. Other corporate interests threatened a virtual strike of capital unless the government relented on its intentions to introduce higher business taxes and to strengthen union rights, environmental regulations and equity programs.
Here is a sample of the flavour of the debate in the U.S. today, over the election in November. Anything smacking of "public interest" is considered anathema to the "right" and they will stop at nothing to undermine, discredit, in fact demonize and destroy anything, even remotely resembling "government interference."
Short-term subsidies for giant auto-makers, for example, even though the money has been paid back with interest, are high on the "hit list" of targets to be exploded repeatedly as evidence of the "un-American" quality of the president and his party.
In Tennessee, recently, the story goes that a house was on fire; the fire department was called; they came and they sat in their truck(s) watching the fire burn the house down, because the owner had not paid the $75 fee required of residents to acquire fire protection. Only when the fire started to threaten the property adjacent did they emerge from their vehicle and put it out. If you want to see a country, at one level, imploding on its own petard, this is it.
There are words that comes from the study of religion that might be useful here. One is sacralizing (making sacred) and the other is satanizing (making evil). In the U.S. case, the "right" considers Obama and his fight to restore the middle class "satanic" in the extreme, because all of their rich and rigid supporters want an economic playing field that leaves them free to plunder, without government interference. These same people sacralize freedom, hate-mongering, personal assasination attacks, and a tax code that is grossly tilted in favour of the top 3% of the income scale.
Of course, the media likes the world divided in this manichean way. They don't have to either think or research where people stand, on a continuum, right or left. And the war ensues.
However, lost in such a picture is nuance, subtlety, sensitivity, and any attempt to bridge the chasm betwen right and left, something Obama has persistently attempted, to the chagrin of his "left wing."
As the anonymous banker commented to Messrs. Rae and Laughren, "We're going to kill you!" the same kind of attitude can be found on the right in the U.S. today, backed by billions unleashed by the Supreme Court, and in Canada in Harperland, (in honour of Lawrence Martin's latest book), focussed on the Liberals.
As my father used to say, in his understated way, when he was most distressed by the way a dynamic was developing, "This is no way to run a railroad!" Surely we are entitled to more respect, and more honesty and more intellectual rigour and far less melodrama, in the pursuit of public policy goals. Or have we descended to the swamp where the "war" mentality is all we have left.

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